Monday, February 06, 2006

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?

Having been almost abusive about complaints that the times are worse today than ever before (or that, at least, the promise of progress from the '60's has not been fulfilled; and it hasn't), let me offer a little more historical perspective, from a review of Taylor Branch's final volume of his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., At Canaan's Edge. The reviewer reminds us that it was, indeed, a different country:

What a different country it was. I lived through those times, but "At Canaan's Edge" made me realize that I did not remember how different. It was before the revolution in women's roles, for example, as Branch tells us in a couple of quick sketches. Southerners had added a ban on sex discrimination to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a way to mock the bill, and at first it was widely treated as a joke. A Page 1 article in The New York Times in 1965 raised the question whether executives must let a "dizzy blonde" drive a tugboat or pitch for the Mets. In 1966 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wondered, in a newsletter, whether an employer could be penalized for refusing to hire "a woman as a dog warden."

But of course it is the virulence of Southern racism at that time that is most striking. This was only 40 years ago, after the passage of the 1964 act, but racist violence and murder were still widespread in the Deep South. Everyone knew who the killers were, but juries would not convict — all-white juries. The openness of the violence was staggering. When Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, came down from Michigan to Selma, Ala., to help in the protest movement, a Ku Klux
Klan gang pulled up alongside the car she was driving and shot her dead.

Selma was about a basic right explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution, the right to vote without discrimination. In Alabama, Mississippi and large parts of other states in the Deep South, the right was a myth for blacks. They were threatened, abused, even murdered if they tried to register or vote; they often lost their homes or their jobs. Armed white mobs menaced them.

It was in the face of those tactics that King decided to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery as a protest for the vote. At the first attempt marchers were brutalized, the march turned back. But they persisted. Branch, usually given to understatement, lets himself go and speaks of "yearnings and exertions toward freedom seldom matched since Valley Forge."

Before a second attempt could be made to march to Montgomery, a difficulty intervened. Judge Frank M. Johnson enjoined the march because of likely violence. Johnson was a highly respected federal judge who had made many decisions in favor of civil rights. Justice Department officials pleaded with King not to violate the order lest he sacrifice the movement's reliance on law and the Constitution. But the protesters, many of them, did not want to give way. King did not say what he would do. The march began. He led it onto the Pettus Bridge at the edge of Selma, faced 500 state troopers — and suddenly turned and led the marchers back into Selma. He had made the point and desisted, obeying the law.

There followed a remarkable episode. Judge Johnson was now asked to let the march go forward and enjoin interference with it. But in a telephone conversation with the United States attorney general, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, he said he would not do so unless the federal government undertook to protect the marchers. And he wanted that assurance from the president, he said. Katzenbach gave him the assurance. Lyndon B. Johnson called the Alabama National Guard into federal service and sent regular Army detachments. On their third try, the marchers made it to Montgomery.
It makes you admire LBJ, and long for him again, despite his myriad faults and his egregious error on Vietnam. And it makes you realize how much more trust in state courts we have today, than we could have had then. And that we aren't so much "progressing" as lurching from side to side, or maybe even in circles. Except that the discrimination of my childhood, encapsulated here, discrimination that forced everyone who was not white and male to the margins, or attempted to, has almost wholly vanished.

Now the discrimination is wholly about power: political and military, and we are told we must either wield it, or fall back.

I wonder what Dr. King would have to say to that.

And unless you think we have never been in a situation of using our military power in disaccord with our public word, a simple reminder, one I had even forgotten (if I ever knew):

Branch's picture of Dr. King on Vietnam is of a man coming slowly, reluctantly, but irresistibly to embrace the issue — against the advice of many supporters. Finally, at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, he called for the United States to "set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement."
And King was not respected for his anti-war stance, any more than a leader today would be:

The Riverside speech drew heavy criticism. John Roche, a Brandeis University professor who was then on the White House staff, said King had "thrown in with the Commies." He told the president that King was "inordinately ambitious and quite stupid (a bad combination)." A Washington Post editorial said, "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence." But King did not give way. He told a church audience that the press had been "so noble in its praise" when he preached nonviolence toward white oppressors but inconsistently "will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children."
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Just ask Harry Belafonte, who has always been a controversial figure. We just forget it after "Beetlegeuse" made "The Banana Boat Song" a kitsch favorite, and "A Patch of Blue" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" stopped challenging our social standards.

Racism in America was not — and is not — confined to the South. Branch reminds us of that in small ways and large. In 1965, he notes, Mary Travers of the trio Peter, Paul and Mary kissed Harry Belafonte on the cheek at a rally. CBS television, which was showing the rally, was besieged by protesting callers, and took the rally off the air for 90 minutes. In the border state of Kentucky, the famous basketball coach Adolph Rupp kept his University of Kentucky team all white. He complained of calls from the university president, "That son of a bitch wants me to get some niggers in here." A little-noted team from Texas Western, with five black players starting, upset Kentucky in the 1966 championship game — a story told just now in the movie "Glory Road." Only slowly, after that, did the bar on black athletes break down in the South. Many people watching college sports on television today would not have dreamed that such a policy ever existed.
And do you want to know how ugly people could be "back in the day"?

Chicago dramatized the reality of antiblack feelings in the North. Marches organized by King to protest segregated housing and unequal government benefits were met with mob taunts and rocks. "Burn them like Jews!" one white group shouted at the marchers. Branch concludes that "the violence against Northern demonstrations cracked a beguiling, cultivated conceit that bigotry was the province of backward Southerners."
And finally, Bush has done nothing that J. Edgar Hoover didn't do first:

His hatred of King was not a secret. But Branch shows how far it went — beyond extremity to morbid depravity.

Hoover instructed all in the bureau not to warn King of death threats. He told President Johnson that any requests for federal protection of King would come from subversives, and that King was "an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our Nation." He listed King as a prominent target in an order to all F.B.I. offices "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations." There was no basis in fact for the calumnies. The charge of subversion hung on the dubious thread of an allegation that Stanley Levison, an adviser to King, was a Communist agent — an allegation never shown to have any convincing support.

The low point in the Hoover story may have been his performance on the killing of Viola Liuzzo. He tried to conceal the fact that one of the Klansmen who shot at her was an F.B.I. informant, Gary Thomas Rowe — and lied to President Johnson about it. He urged the president not to speak with the Liuzzo family, telling Johnson that "the woman had indications of needle marks in her arms where she had been taking dope; that she was sitting very, very close to the Negro in the car; that it had the appearance of a necking party." (Liuzzo's arm was cut by a shard of glass from the shattered car window.) Branch calls Hoover's comments "slanderous Klan fantasy dressed as evidence."

J. Edgar Hoover was either a profoundly disturbed man by this time or that rarity, actual evil.
But here is a reminder of why we still admire Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is is so simple, and so frightening in its determination and its purity, that even the tribute to Dr. King on the Boondocks (which I admired), didn't come close to touching on it:

Under provocation that hardly any other human being could have resisted, King never gave up on nonviolence. The rise of black-power advocates like Stokely Carmichael did not move him. "I am not going to allow anybody to pull me so low as to use the very methods that perpetuated evil throughout our civilization," he told a meeting in 1966. "I'm sick and tired of violence. I'm tired of the war in Vietnam. I'm tired of war and conflict in the world. I'm tired of shooting. I'm tired of hatred. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of evil. I'm not going to use violence no matter who says it!"

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